Leverage for Systems Change from Eduardo Galeano

Posted on Thursday, August 15th, 2019

If you’re not acquainted with the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, I highly recommend his brilliant books about Latin America and also soccer. I recently finished reading his latest (and I think last) translated book, “Hunter of Stories,” published in English in 2017.

A week ago I had the book with me while teaching a professional development course in systems thinking at the University of Washington. When the class broke for lunch and everyone left, I sat down with my brought-from-home salad to read a few pages. Galeano’s style is to write short pieces, often a page or less, never more than two pages. One of the pieces I read during lunch is titled “The Taxi Driver,” and I was so struck by the story that I opened the afternoon session by reading it to the class. I never expected an example of leverage for systems change!

Here’s the whole story:

The Taxi Driver

Some years back I was in Stockholm for the first time.

And for the first time I took a Swedish taxi.

When we arrived at our destination, the driver got out of the car the way one might descend from a horse-drawn carriage, opened the door for me, charged me for the trip and, with every possible courtesy, gave me my change and bid me farewell with a brief salute.

It was very cold, as it usually is there, and I confess that such useless self-sacrifice seemed unjust.

That night I mentioned it to my friends.

Isn’t there a socialist government in Sweden? What’s with these servant-like customs from the days of lords and lackeys?

They fell silent.

Then, with saintly patience, they explained that the taxi driver was obeying a law passed by the socialists to protect the workers.

To collect his fare, the driver must get out of the car. Thus, without realizing it, he gets some exercise. Those few steps in the street help improve his circulation, stretch muscles, and activate the lungs.

Since the law came into effect, health problems among taxi drivers had declined drastically.

Galeano, E. 2017. Hunter of stories. New York: Nation Books.
Hunter of Stories

I can’t say whether this story is true, but I love it as an example of finding leverage for systems change. The relatively small action of passing a law about getting out of the car to collect the fare produced the disproportionately large effect of improving the health of workers in an entire sector. Systems thinking is key to all the work I do with teams, organizations, and communities. If you’d like to hear more about what it means to have a systems perspective on your work and the world, let’s meet for coffee.